Factory Visit: Optimo Hats

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This summer, while audiences root for bad guy John Dillinger, famed Chicago bank robber, as he lives larger than life in Michael Mann’s latest blockbuster Public Enemies, I’ll be ogling his hats.

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When Graham Thompson of Chicago’s Optimo Hats was approached by costumer Colleen Atwood to provide headwear for the films’ leads, Mr. Thompson came armed with books filled with period photos of men sporting high-crowned, short-brimmed fedoras.

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“… but she and her team, they were ready. They did their homework.”

public_enemies01Christian Bale plays FBI manhunter Melvin Purvis.

Thompson made 75 hats for the film and several additional fedoras for Mr. Depp, “a real hat guy,” he’s quick to differentiate. “There are hat people and there are not hat people…”

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“… but it doesn’t take a connoisseur to tell the difference between a good hat and a bad hat.”

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Put an Optimo hat in your hands and the difference in quality is obvious.

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Thompson, 37, fell in love with hats in high school. While studying Japanese at Chaminade University-Honolulu, he grew an appreciation for the Panama Hat. Depending on the quality of wheat fiber, the strength and size of the weave, a well-made Panama can go for thousands of dollars.

oh 008Straw Monte Christis as they arrive from Ecuador.

While kids his age spent their summers flipping burgers, Thompson apprenticed with renowned Chicago hat man Johnny Tyus of Johnny’s Hat Shop. “And right after I graduated, Johnny told me he was retiring.”

oh 021A father and son arrive for a fitting.

Not one to let an opportunity pass, he bought Tyus’ machines and offered to continue to learn from him for as long as he was willing to teach.

“I would show him things I thought were neat. Tricks, refining techniques, and he’d just say, ‘No.’”

Thompson was fortunate to learn from a real South Sider. The men of Chicago’s South Side are serious about their hats. “It’s a real hat culture. Drive around here in the winter – Cadillac’s zipping around and you’ll see all the hat silhouettes inside.”

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“It’s a feel. For them it’s about the flip of the hat, a certain roll, a certain shape. The look of the hat is key.” He hammered the point home saying, “They’ll tell ya, ‘Do the hat right.’”

oh 010“Give it a tilt like this.”

And that they do. Thompson bought a two flat on the southwestern edge of the city in the Beverly neighborhood. Living above the shop for a number of years, he’d make hats all day, only traipsing upstairs to sleep and eat.

oh 017“Yeah, it was hard for a long time. Get up, make hats, go to sleep. Get up, make hats, go to sleep.”

oh 018Eventually moving out, Thompson’s now finishing a major expansion of the shop. The business is growing, yet he’s loath to allow it to outgrow their space.

oh 019“We don’t want to over-market,” and rightly so. Each hat is made by hand, a labor-intensive process, and they make no compromise for quality.

oh 023A small collection of grosgrain ribbon ready for hatbands.

“We’re continuing a craft that’s gone unchanged since 30s. The art form has been slowly dying ever since.”

oh 022Seamstress Lucia Tovar attaches the sweatband to a Monte Christi.

It takes an excellent craftsman to make a handmade hat, and even then, machines often do a better job. “With proper machinery, there’s no way you can say it’s better to do that by hand.”

oh 013This machine sands the brim’s edge as it spins the hat.

As practice, Thompson would make hats using simply a stick, a rope, and a steam pot. He explains that this helped to learn the properties of felt. But he’s quick to note that a machine which has perfectly ground the hat with pressure at all the same points is always better than a hand iron that has distributed the heat unevenly.

“It’s handmade not homemade,” a catchphrase if ever there was one.

Thompson travels to Monte Cristi, Ecuador three times a year to buy their Panamas, all of which are made with European straw.

Along with the felts, most of the machines, often acquired when factories close, are European.

oh 015Kevin Fitzpatrick, weekend shopkeep, shows off a new felt.

All their felt is made to their exacting specifications. “It took a while for us to grow big enough to fill felt orders so we could do optimal quality.”

Now, they limit their production to twenty colors a year. “Although we reran the oxblood Depp wears in the film.”

Depp 001It’s a cool color. In certain lights it looks black in others dark brown.

oh 014Not just any Buddy, that’s the signature of regular customer, blues legend, Buddy Guy.

“We play a lot of jazz and old rhythm & blues in the shop. One of the cool things about working here, we cater to that crowd.”

Jazz Masters, Blue Smiths, and Public Enemy Number One. All in a day’s work.


For film of Graham in action, check out The Chicago Sun-Times.

Additional photos provided by Universal Pictures and EKH. For more of my visit to Optimo Hats, see my Flickr account.